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What’s going on with Luis Torrens’s defense?

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After a strong track record in the Minors and a promising 2020 with Seattle, Luis Torrens’s defensive game is in shambles. What happened, and how can he get back on track?

MLB: MAY 08 Mariners at Rangers Photo by Aric Becker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For better or for worse, the offensive expectations for catchers are lower than the other positions. The justification is usually that catching is the hardest position; besides the obvious physical wear on their knees, they’re tasked with calling pitches throughout a given game, working with a diverse pitching staff on strategy and planning, and taking plenty of foul balls off of the rest of their body. Throw hitting Major League pitching into all of that? Quite a tall order - in fact, only eleven teams’ catching corps have put up a wRC+ over 100 so far in 2021.

With all that being said, the Mariners currently own the second-lowest catcher wRC+ in baseball at just 44, ahead of only the Rockies’ 29. Even by catcher standards, there’s tons of room for improvement. Neither Luis Torrens nor Tom Murphy have done much damage at the plate, but that can be ~excused with good glovework, and while Murphy has mostly held up his end of that bargain, Torrens... well...

No matter how you slice it, Luis Torrens’s defense has not been big league quality - and that’s frankly an understatement. With only 24 games (22 starts) behind the plate, he leads the American League in stolen bases allowed at 19 (the Dodgers’ tandem of Will Smith and Austin Barnes have allowed 21 and 19 swiped bags, respectively) and has prevented just two for a pitiful 9.5% CS%. He’s allowed fourteen wild pitches out of nineteen total from Seattle’s catching corps, he ranks 49th out of 59 qualifying catchers on Baseball Savant’s framing leaderboard, and has had a couple of cringey brain farts, like this doozy against the Rangers a couple weeks back:

Or this truly baffling decision on Tuesday to field a throw from right field like he was blocking a pitch instead of preparing to make a tag at the plate:

Yikes! There’s really no credible defense anyone can make here on either of those, and I’ve noticed the fanbase’s patience with him has grown thinner than rice paper - to many, he’s taken up the ever-shifting role of team scapegoat. While it’s undeniable that his defense this year has been painful to watch, a lot of what I’m seeing hasn’t jived with his minor league numbers, nor what his scattered, hectic time in the Majors as a Rule 5 guy in 2017 bore out.

For starters, in 2020, Torrens shifted to receiving the ball on one knee, a new-ish approach in recent years. Here’s how he set up in 2017, using the more traditional and familiar crouch:

After he put up an excellent season on both sides of the ball in Double-A in 2019, he was rewarded with a September callup, and sure enough, the crouch remained:

At some point in 2020, however, he adopted the one-knee method, and this isn’t something that we can directly ascribe to Seattle’s catching development. He was doing it as a Padre:

And continued to do so as a Mariner:

There are a couple benefits to using this method: for one, it’s easier on the knees and is more conducive for long-term catching, and theoretically, it can help keep a steadier glove for framing. On the downside, it takes a precious extra second or two to pop up to throw out a runner and can make it tougher to drop down to smother a spiked breaking ball without it clanking off the glove, so you rarely see catchers do so with runners on base. That hasn’t stopped him from doing so this year, though:

Unfortunately, it hasn’t paid Torrens any dividends. Despite his pitch framing on the inside and outside corners being decent the whole time, he’s given away several low and high strikes. Watching plenty of his starts this year, he’s developed a bad habit of prematurely snapping his glove up into the heart of the zone upon catching a low borderline pitch, and vice versa for the high ones. It may not swing the needle too strongly, but holding his glove there just a split second longer could do a long way in stealing some of those strike back. He wasn’t a very good framer in 2017 with crouching, either, which makes me wonder if he switched things up in an attempt to clean up that aspect of his game. Regardless of his intentions, though, he hasn’t worked for him yet - he was 54th out of 62 qualifying catchers in framing in 2020.

Even worse, sticking with the one-knee approach when runners are on has been a factor in the disintegration of his blocking skills. Consider this spiked slider from Logan Gilbert that may have been corralled if the knee hadn’t already been planted:

This 55-foot cutter from Anthony Misiewicz, too, could have been snared by collapsing from a full crouch rather than prematurely pulling up from a knee:

While he somehow has not allowed a passed ball, fourteen wild pitches - including seven in his last seven games - in just over 190 innings is pretty rough. Yes, pitchers need to locate and hit their spots, but that many allowed by a catcher in that span of time won’t play in the bigs - especially if they can’t make up for it with throwing out a would-be base stealer every so often. Indeed, while there are five catchers that have allowed more wild pitches than Torrens (including a league-leading 24 from Salvador Pérez), each of them have prevented stolen bases at a better rate than him. One of them is the 2021 version of Gary Sánchez. Tuesday also featured this particularly grim attempt as another cherry on top of falling victim to a no-hitter:

And predictably, receiving on a knee seems to have impacted his ability there, too:

What’s going on here? Luis Torrens routinely hung around a 40% caught stealing rate in the Minors, never dropping below 34%, and held his own as a 21-year-old jumping from High-A, running a 26 CS% across 310.2 innings behind the dish. It wasn’t a big issue in his Mariners introduction, either - 23% isn’t great, but it is perfectly acceptable for a young catcher learning a new staff. I highly doubt his arm strength simply vanished over the offseason, and while it’s easy to pin every possible explanation on eschewing the crouch, there has to be more going on here.

The truth is, preventing stolen bases isn’t entirely on the catcher. As Dee Strange-Gordon explained in a fun animated video a few years back, bases are stolen off of the pitcher, and the Mariners’ staff hasn’t done a great job preventing that so far this season. Collectively, they’ve allowed 28 steals, the third-highest in baseball, and that’s paired with a 12.5% CS% that’s ahead of only the Padres. Nearly half of those have come from Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield, and they also account for ten out of the nineteen stolen bases Torrens has allowed. To further complicate things, Torrens didn’t catch Dunn at all in 2020, with Scott Servais instead opting to pair the young pitcher with Joe Odom most of the time, who caught him quite a bit with Double-A Arkansas in 2019.

For Dunn, holding runners has been an issue for him throughout his young big league career; 24 stolen bases over just one caught stealing through 87 innings is... not great! It’s hasn’t gotten any better in 2021, either, with eight stolen bases allowed (five with Torrens catching) without a successful nab across 34.2 frames. Sheffield’s uncharacteristically struggled in that department this year, as well - through 39 innings, he’s allowed five steals after allowing six through 55.1 in 2020. For contrast, Chris Flexen - who Torrens has caught for five out of his seven total starts - has not allowed a stolen base all season no matter who he’s throwing to. A caveat here is that Flexen has a great pickoff move, but it’s also worth noting that Torrens has caught more plate appearances for him than anyone else on staff at 109, with Dunn right behind him at 93. Yusei Kikuchi and Marco Gonzales haven’t had a batter steal off of them with him behind the dish, either, which suggests that the litany of runners that have swiped bases with ease haven’t all been on him.

To be clear, none of this is meant to absolve Torrens completely. No matter how you slice it, a 9.5% caught stealing rate just won’t play in the Majors, and bobbling an easy transfer or making a throw to second from the knees can’t be blamed on any pitcher. Combine that with the below-average framing, the rough blocking, and the multiple lapses in judgement, and I’ve wondered lately if he has the catching form of the yips - and being on the receiving end of a cascade of boos on Tuesday certainly couldn’t have benefited him if that’s the case. Abandoning the one-knee approach and going back to the traditional crouch would be a great first step, although with a minor league option remaining, it feels like both in his and the team’s best interest to give him a reset in the low-stakes environment of Tacoma for a few weeks.

The question is, where do you go from there on the big club? While Tom Murphy got two out of three starts in the past series, he’s caught consecutive games just twice all season, and not since April 22nd-23rd. The defense is still there, but it’s possible that there’s some lingering issue the club is trying to mitigate as much as they can. Cal Raleigh is a popular fan choice thanks to his fast start in Triple-A, but considering he’s only six months younger than Torrens (!) and has just 208 plate appearances above High-A, he’ll probably need a little more seasoning in Tacoma. José Godoy would be a fine stopgap as a 26-year-old lefty swinger who doesn’t strike out a ton and brings passable defense, or the club could bring in a catcher from the waiver wire like Jeff Mathis or Tony Wolters. Any of these options, however, would require a 40-man move - not that should stop them from taking action.

Luis Torrens’s story and path to the big leagues has been nothing short of fascinating and inspiring - writing his 40-in-40 back in February remains some of my proudest work. Unfortunately, it’s very clear that this version of him is not the guy we saw last September, and Tuesday’s showing was arguably his rock bottom. Having just turned 25 a couple weeks ago, he’s young enough that he still has time to turn it around, and his offensive numbers and batted ball profile have improved since he fixed his swing on April 26th (not a single pop-up since that date!). Without major changes behind the plate, though, his opportunity to be part of the future in Seattle will slam shut a lot quicker than any of us would like, but I believe he can and will make them.